So, the BBC is reporting that James Holmes, who apparently shot nearly 50 people in a paramilitary-style attack on a movie theatre near Denver, was a former neuroscience PhD student at UC-Denver. This adds to a lengthening chain of doctoral candidates who kill, including Gang Lu at the University of Iowa in 1991, and James Eaton Kelly at the University of Arkansas in August of 2000. Both of these were individuals who, while obviously insane in the way most homicidal people are insane, were immediately motivated by career difficulties. Lu was unable to find a professional position on graduating, and Kelly had been drummed out of his PhD progam.
Obviously these are widely scattered incidents and there is no metanarrative to be drawn from them, much less any speculation to be done about this current tragedy. But it does point out the fact that the academic world is tied into the same competitive and high-pressure system that encompasses the rest of America, with its disgruntled postal carriers, police officers, and office drones. These expressions of malevolent rage come from people who seek validation and worth in their careers and, when it isn't forthcoming, have no ongoing reason to engage in society. It's that disconnection from society - utter, complete alienation - that allows such things to happen. And the isolating, hypercompetitive, high-pressure world of graduate school is a potent brew for those already disposed to instability and violence.